A newly developed stealth sheet can hide hot objects like human bodies or military vehicles from infrared cameras. Image: Hongrui Jiang.
A newly developed stealth sheet can hide hot objects like human bodies or military vehicles from infrared cameras. Image: Hongrui Jiang.

Infrared cameras are the heat-sensing eyes that help drones find their targets even in the dead of night or through heavy fog. Hiding from such detectors could now become much easier, thanks to a new cloaking material that renders objects – and people – practically invisible.

"What we have shown is an ultrathin stealth 'sheet'. Right now, what people have is much heavier metal armor or thermal blankets," says Hongrui Jiang, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison.

Warm objects like human bodies or tank engines emit heat as infrared light. The new stealth sheet, reported in a paper in Advanced Engineering Materials, offers substantial improvements over other heat-masking technologies. "It's a matter of the weight, the cost and ease of use," says Jiang.

Less than 1mm thick, the sheet absorbs approximately 94% of the infrared light it encounters. Trapping so much light means that warm objects beneath the cloaking material become almost completely invisible to infrared detectors. Importantly, the stealth material can strongly absorb light in the so-called mid- and long-wavelength infrared range, the type of light emitted by objects at approximately human body temperature.

By incorporating electronic heating elements into the stealth sheet, it can also be used to trick infrared cameras. "You can intentionally deceive an infrared detector by presenting a false heat signature," says Jiang. "It could conceal a tank by presenting what looks like a simple highway guardrail."

To trap infrared light, Jiang and his colleagues turned to a unique material called black silicon, which is commonly incorporated into solar cells. Black silicon absorbs light because it consists of millions of microscopic needles (called nanowires) all pointing upward like a densely-packed forest. Incoming light reflects back and forth between the vertical spires, bouncing around within the material instead of escaping.

Although black silicon has long been known to absorb visible light, Jiang and his colleagues were the first to see the material's potential for trapping infrared light. They boosted black silicon’s absorptive properties by tweaking the method used to create the material.

"We didn't completely reinvent the whole process, but we did extend the process to much taller nanowires," says Jiang, who developed the material in National Science Foundation-supported facilities at UW-Madison.

The researchers make the nanowires by using tiny particles of silver to help etch into a thin layer of solid silicon, producing a thicket of tall needles. Both the nanowires and the silver particles contribute to absorbing infrared light. The black silicon also has a flexible backing interspersed with small air channels, which prevent the stealth sheet from heating up too quickly as it absorbs infrared light.

This story is adapted from material from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.